Talking To Children About Death and Cancer

We were all saddened to hear about the passing of Elizabeth Edwards. Last week, a beloved teacher at my daughters’ school died after an aggressive recurrence of her breast cancer. The principal emailed parents this link about helping young children understand death from the National Network for Child Care, and I think it makes important points.

Of course, explaining cancer to children can seem particularly hard (after all, its unpredictability is difficult for adults to grapple with too). This is good piece on parents.com about about how to tell your child that you have breast cancer. And here is an articulate portion of an article from the American Cancer Society about explaining what cancer is:

Young children (under the age of eight) can be told that the body is made up of lots of different parts. When someone has cancer, it means that something has gone wrong with one of these parts and it’s stopped doing what it’s supposed to do. Part of the body is no longer normal. Over time, a tumor or lump has developed, or a bunch of bad cells started to grow (in the case of leukemia and lymphomas). The tumor (or the bad cells) should not be there. Cancer can keep growing in other parts of a person’s body, so the person needs treatment to either take out the tumor or stop it from spreading to other places. Some kids may not have any questions at first, but invite them to ask you later if they think of any. Older children (in general, ages 8 and up) may be able to understand a more complex discussion. They may want to see pictures of cancer cells or read about cancer treatment. Again, encourage them to ask questions that they may think of later.

If you missed the beautiful piece in the December issue about Jennifer Gould Keil’s loss of her husband to melanoma and how she helped her children come to terms with this death, you can read it here.

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